Want your website to get noticed? Break the rules!
Every time I hear someone in marketing or advertising talk about "best practices" for website design, I roll my eyes.
Now granted, many of the do's and don't's of web design have merit. They've been tried, tested and proven to work. And I believe that certain best practices such as ease of navigation, making good use of white space, ensuring that site text is easy to read and building for fast loading times are sarcosanct. But I also believe that best practices are helping to hold marketers back.
The problem I have with best practices is that while they are there to guide everyone in website design, they also cause everyone to look pretty much the same. Adherence to best practices tends to create a formulaic, templated approach to website design. The logos, colors and images on various sites may differ, but they mirror one another in their composition--i.e. logos in the upper left, navigation at the top, copy centered or aligned to the right, vertical scrolling, etc. They're design conventions that definitely work, but make for few standout websites.
"Okay," I can hear you saying, "that's all well and good. But I'm a law/accounting/financial services firm. My site has to be functional, and it should stand out because of my message, not because it looks cool and creative." All true. But in order to read your message, your site has to be noticed first. While I'm not advocating that professional services firms push the boundaries of convention just for the sake of being different, there are a few rules you can break (or at least bend) in order to make your site stand out from the competition.
While usability studies show that most website users prefer to scroll and read text vertically, most of those studies were conducted years ago prior to the ubiquitousness of touch screens, widescreen monitors and many other developments we now take for granted. For touch screens like those on the iPhone/iPad, horizontal navigation is the preferred form of navigation because it's more ergonomic to move your hand from side to side than up and down. In the case of monitors, screen resolutions have gotten better. We used to design for 1024 x 768 screen resolutions. Now, many screens have resolutions that are 1440 x 900 and they're much wider, which means that viewers get more real-estate horizontally than they do vertically.
I also think--and this is strictly my opinion--that our brains are better wired to consume information horizontally. Maybe it’s because we've been doing it that way offine for so many years. Books are read with a horizontal flip, galleries place paintings and photographs alongside each other, and most of our world is organized horizontally rather than vertically--i.e. our houses are next to each other and we move through the world in a mostly linear fashion.
Chart a New Course
Navigation buttons and links should always be easy to find, but do they always need to be at the top or along the sides of the page? And do they always have to be "buttons"? Unconventional navigation--as long as its easy to find and figure out--has the ability to engage the audience and keep them on your site. A good example of navigation that breaks with traditional design and works well is from the web design firm Hello Goodlooking in Helsinki, Finland:
Here, the navigation buttons are centered on the page and move to the sides when you click on them and open a window. They're easy to see, easy to understand and make the site simply downright fun to navigate.
Shift Your Perspective
Right-aligned page content is often not seen in a world of centered or left-aligned web pages. Whenever I come across a page that is aligned uniquely, I have to pause and take a second look. It's a simple (and safer) way to look unique without having to deviate from other conventions of website design.
Using reversed type, multiple typefaces and unique fonts is generally frowned upon in website design. Yet sites that do all or some of these things tend to grab a lot of attention--and not necessarily for all the wrong reasons. And you don't have to be a kooky design firm to do it. Morrison Foerster is a law firm whose website is truly unique within the industry. No images, just type--and mostly reversed type, at that. Big, bold headlines. A conversational tone. And don't even get me started on their careers site, which has to be one of the best in any industry. Most law firms make claims to be different and innovative. MoFo's website backs it up.
Sometimes breaking with best practices is worthwhile. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that it's the only way to truly stand out. Striving for innovative design and a better way of web browsing has brought about some great changes in the last decade. Being different to be better is a perfect example of when the rules of best practices should be broken.